Posted On: November 29, 2010

Equitable Division and Property Owned by Third Party

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently heard a case regarding whether property owned by a third party can be equitably divided in a divorce. In Armour v. Holcombe, the husband’s mother purchased a house during the parties’ marriage and allowed the parties to live there. Armour v. Holcombe, S10AF0946 (2010). A few years later, the husband’s mother deeded the property to the husband as a gift. Id. The husband refinanced the property and both he and his mother made payments on the debt. Id. In March 2005, the husband deeded the property back to his mother as he was facing financial difficulty. Id. Six months later, the wife filed for divorce and added the husband’s mother as a defendant, alleging that the deed “was executed to deprive Wife of her marital interest in the property.” Id. at 2.

Despite the trial court ordering the home sold and proceeds held in escrow pending the outcome of the litigation, the wife decided not to pursue the fraudulent conveyance issue at the divorce trial. Id. Nonetheless, the trial court instructed the jury that the sales proceeds were a marital asset subject to equitable division, and the jury awarded the wife approximately 2/3 of the proceeds. Id.

The husband’s mother appealed, arguing that the trial court erred because “there was no evidence that the property was a marital asset,” and the Georgia Supreme Court agreed. Id. The Court emphasized that the wife did not cite any case law regarding property owned by a third party being subject to equitable division, “nor should authority for such a ruling be expected.” Id. at 5. The Court adamantly held “[i]t would be highly disruptive to the transfer and ownership of property to allow a divorcing spouse to claim that property held by a third party is subject to equitable division in the divorce action based merely upon that spouse’s actions regarding the property during its prior ownership by the other spouse.” Id. at 5.

The Georgia Supreme Court mentioned that the wife may have had recourse with a fraudulent conveyance claim, but the wife “chose to abandon” this avenue. Id. at 7.

Posted On: November 26, 2010

An Atlanta Divorce Attorney's Thoughts on Celebrity Divorce - Charlie Sheen and Brooke Mueller

In this installment of An Atlanta Divorce Attorney’s Thoughts on Celebrity Divorce, I’m going to address the divorce of Charlie Sheen and Brooke Mueller. People magazine recently reported that the parties have each filed for divorce. Sheen is seeking joint legal and physical custody of their twin boys, and Mueller is seeking primary physical custody with visitation rights for Sheen.

Surprisingly, it appears that this divorce might not be as contested as one would imagine, given their history together. Apparently, while separated earlier this year, they entered into an agreement settling matters of child custody, child support and equitable division. It appears that spousal support may still be a contested issue. In addition, it appears that Sheen’s divorce filing differed from the purported agreement on the issue of custody.

If the parties do end up in court with a contested divorce, my guess, based upon their history, is that it won’t be pretty. Both parties have recently been in rehab for substance abuse – a fact the judge would seriously consider in awarding custody. In addition, Sheen was sentenced to domestic violence counseling stemming from their altercation over Christmas last year, and was recently hospitalized after an “incident” at the Plaza Hotel. Each party will likely drag the other through the mud in trying to prove to the judge that he or she should be awarded custody. If this case was in Georgia, the judge would hear all of the evidence and weigh many factors before awarding custody based on the best interests of the children standard.

Posted On: November 22, 2010

Rights of legal father in legitimation action

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed the rights of a legal father in a legitimation action brought by the child’s biological father. In Baker v. Lankford, the wife gave birth to a child during her marriage to the husband. Baker v. Lankford, A10A1211 (2010). The husband believed the child was his biological child, and was listed as the father on the child’s birth certificate, only to later find out that he was not the biological father. Id. He filed for divorce and, while the divorce was pending, the biological father filed a petition for legitimation, custody and visitation, to which the wife/mother consented. Id. at 2. Shortly thereafter, the husband/legal father moved to intervene in the legitimation proceeding. A few days later, while the motion was still pending, the trial court granted the legitimation petition and then denied the motion to intervene. Id. at 3.

On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed that the trial court erred in denying the husband/legal father’s motion to intervene. The Court of Appeals found that the husband/legal father had an interest in the legitimation proceeding, as he was the child’s legal father (the child being born during the marriage) and, thereby had parental and custodial rights to the child. Id. at 4. In addition, the Court found that his interest as the child’s father “would be impaired by a decision of the trial court that was unfavorable to him, and his interest was not adequately represented by the parties to the action,” especially in light of the wife’s consent to the action. Id. at 6.

The Court held that “[w]here intervention appears before final judgment, where the rights of the intervening party have not been protected, and where the denial of intervention would dispose of the intervening party's cause of action, intervention should be allowed and the failure to do so amounts to an abuse of discretion.” Id. at 7. The Court, therefore, reversed the denial of the motion to intervene and vacated the judgment on the legitimation petition.

Posted On: November 19, 2010

Divorce and holiday visitation

If you are going through a divorce, or have recently gone through a divorce, the holidays can be a particularly difficult time. When you and your former spouse (or soon-to-be former spouse) have children together, this time of year can be even more challenging for everyone involved as the whole family will have to cope with spending holidays separately.

If your divorce is final, you are required to abide by your final divorce decree regarding who has the children for the holidays. If you do not yet have a final divorce decree and there is no temporary order governing custody and visitation for the holidays, I highly recommend that you seek to get an agreement in place. There are several reasons for coming to a holiday arrangement sooner rather than later: (1) You can make travel plans, if necessary; (2) You can make arrangements for taking time off work or getting child care during the time you have the children when they will be off school; (3) You can ensure that both parents will have some time with the children over the holidays; and (4) The children will know what to expect and may, therefore, be able to cope with the changes a little better.

In making an agreement, you may want to consider our sample holiday visitation ideas.

Posted On: November 15, 2010

Child custody - Final decision-making regarding religion

Final decision-making regarding children and religion can be an important issue for many parents going through a divorce. The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed this issue. In Greene v. Greene, the parties entered into a Settlement Agreement in their divorce action, which provided that the parties would have joint legal custody with the mother as the sole physical custodian. Greene v. Greene, A10A1463 (2010). In addition, the mother would have final decision-making authority on all matters related to religion. Id. The parties agreed that “the child would be raised in the Jewish faith, would attend Hebrew school, become Bat Mitzvah and follow other Jewish traditions." Id. at 4. After the father violated this provision of the Settlement Agreement, the mother filed a motion for contempt. The trial court granted the mother’s motion, and the father appealed.

On appeal the father admitted that, in spite of the agreement, he had taken the child to numerous Christian churches, shared Christian prayers with the child, read the Bible to the child, played Christian music for the child, gave the child Christian books and DVDs, and told the child that she was “Jewish on the outside and Christian on the inside.” Id. The father acknowledged that he knew the Settlement Agreement gave the mother final decision making authority on religion, but contended that the trial court’s ruling “restricted his freedom to share his religious beliefs with his child.” Id. at 2.

The Georgia Court of Appeals disagreed with the father. The Court held that when the Settlement Agreement is “clear, unambiguous, and capable of only one interpretation as written, the provision’s plain meaning must be strictly enforced.” Id. at 5, quoting Page v. Baylard, 281 Ga. 586, 587 (1) (642 SE2d 14) (2007). In affirming the trial court’s ruling, the Court said “the Settlement Agreement is clear that Wife had the right to make the final decisions about the child’s religious upbringing, and the trial court correctly concluded that the Agreement governs.” Id. at 5.

Posted On: November 12, 2010

Challenging your Georgia divorce decree? Don’t retain the benefits of that decree.

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently reinstated a bright line rule regarding a party retaining the benefits of a Georgia divorce decree that that same party is challenging. In Thompson v. Thompson, the Husband challenged the Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce, alleging that the trial court erred in its equitable division award by dividing funds and property that were his non-marital assets. Thompson v. Thompson, S10F1231 (2010). The trial court denied the husband’s motions for new trial, clarification, and reconsideration, holding that “he had availed himself of the benefits of the final order” and was, thereby, prohibited from challenging it. Id. The husband subsequently appealed the denial of his motions.

In affirming the trial court’s ruling, Supreme Court of Georgia followed long-standing principles of Georgia law. Specifically, the Court held that “one who has accepted benefits such as spousal support or equitable division of property under a divorce decree is estopped from seeking to set aside that decree without first returning the benefits.” Id. at 3. Thus, if you want to dispute a Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce in Georgia, you must either not accept any support or equitable division from that award, or you must return any portion of the award that you have accepted, before initiating any challenge.

The Court clarified that a party “may collect an award of child support and still repudiate a final judgment, as those benefits belong to the child.” Id. at 3-4.

Posted On: November 8, 2010

Evidence at temporary hearing vs. final hearing in divorce case in Georgia

In Georgia, there is a difference between the evidence that can be presented in a temporary hearing versus a final hearing in a divorce case. In Pace v. Pace, after a temporary hearing at which both parties testified, the husband was awarded physical custody of the children and the parties were awarded legal custody. Pace v. Pace, S10F0843 (2010). About a year later, a final hearing was held, at which both parties and multiple witnesses testified, and a Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce was entered, awarding permanent physical and legal custody of the children to the husband. Id. The wife appealed after being denied a new trial.

In its review, the Georgia Supreme Court noted that “the trial court relied substantially on testimony adduced at the temporary hearing in making its determination on permanent custody,” that the parties were not on notice that this testimony would be considered for permanent custody, and that the trial court relied on its “memory and notes” rather than a transcript in reaching its decision. Id. at 2.

The Georgia Supreme Court held that the trial court erred in its reliance on evidence from the temporary hearing because an award of temporary custody “differ[s] in its nature and purpose from an award of temporary custody”. Id. at 3, quoting Foster v. Foster, 230 Ga. 658, 660 (1973). Further, temporary orders and final orders are not governed by the same rules of law. Pace, at 3. In a temporary hearing, only the parties and one additional witness for each side may testify. Uniform Superior Court Rule 24.5(A). In addition, minor children cannot testify at temporary hearings. Id. at (B). These rules do not apply at a final hearing. Thus, stated the Court, “the nature and quality of the evidence presented at a temporary hearing is likely to be different than that which is ultimately presented at the final hearing…” Pace, at 4. The Georgia Supreme Court held that “absent express notice to the parties, it is error for a trial court to rely on evidence from the temporary hearing in making its final custody determination.” Id. at 5.

Posted On: November 5, 2010

In Georgia, do I pay alimony or child support if my divorce decree is appealed?

Atlanta divorce attorneys are often asked whether a party has to pay alimony or child support when the order requiring alimony/child support has been appealed. The Georgia Supreme Court recently clarified this issue. Robinson v. Robinson, S10A0929 (2010). In Robinson v. Robinson, there was an August 2007 temporary order in the divorce case requiring, among other things, that the husband pay the wife $3,000 per month in temporary alimony. Id. In November 2008, a Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce was entered in the case, providing lump sum permanent alimony to the wife, but no periodic/monthly alimony. Id. at 2. The Georgia Supreme Court denied the husband’s appeal of this award, and remittitur was entered in July 2009. Id. ("Remittitur" means that the appellate court's order goes back to the trial court for final order consistent with the appellate court's decision.) Shortly thereafter, the wife filed a motion for contempt alleging that the husband had not fully paid alimony in June, July and August 2009, while the husband’s appeal was pending. Id. at 3. The trial court found that the husband was not in contempt, and reasoned that the wife was not entitled to periodic alimony under the Final Judgment and Decree, that the Final Judgment and Decree was essentially affirmed by the denial of the husband’s appeal, and that the ruling that no periodic alimony would be due was effective as of the date of the Final Judgment and Decree (November 2008). Id. at 4.

The issue presented to the Georgia Supreme Court on the wife’s appeal was whether permanent awards in a Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce take effect as of the date of the remittitur, or whether they relate back to the date of the Final Judgment and Decree. Id. at 5. In reversing the trial court’s decision as to the alimony issue, the Georgia Supreme Court clarified previously confusing and contradicting precedent on this issue. Specifically, the Court held that “a temporary award continues in effect until the entry of the remittitur in the trial court, and it is from that date forward that any permanent award in a final judgment and decree of divorce has effect.” Id. at 11. Thus, the award does not relate back to the date of the FInal Judgment and Decree of Divorce.

In addition, the Court held that any payments of temporary alimony should not offset lump sum alimony because “temporary alimony is different in character and purpose from an award of permanent alimony because it is intended to meet the exigencies arising out of the domestic crisis of a pending proceeding for divorce.” Id. at 10.

Posted On: November 1, 2010

Temporary Alimony in Georgia

In Georgia, parties in a divorce may request temporary alimony, pending a final judgment in the divorce case. OCGA §19-6-3(a). Often during a divorce action, one party is unemployed and/or left with no access to martial funds with which to pay for his/her attorney’s fees. The temporary alimony awarded can help that party pay attorney’s fees or other expenses incurred during the pendency of the divorce action.

Under Georgia law, temporary alimony will be awarded “as the condition of the parties and the facts of the case may justify.” Id. In determining whether temporary alimony is warranted, “the judge shall consider the peculiar necessities created for each party by the pending litigation and any evidence of a separate estate owned by either party.” OCGA §19-6-3(b). If the party seeking temporary alimony has an ample separate estate with which to pay fees and other expenses, the judge may refuse to award temporary alimony. Id. Thus, temporary alimony is based upon need.

It should be noted that, if temporary alimony is awarded, this does not necessarily mean that the judge will award permanent alimony. Nor does the denial of temporary alimony necessarily mean that permanent alimony will be denied.